Children don’t owe their parents a relationship

This morning I read a post by Libby Anne in which she criticized another article written by a woman who was complaining about the estrangement of her two sons. I agree with Libby Anne that the woman seemed to be engaged in a lot of rationalizations, she was certain she didn’t deserve the estrangement, but clearly doesn’t tell the whole story; more on that in a little bit.

This happens to be an article that hits close to home for me. I’ve mulled over blogging about this, but last month after another series of fights with my parents, and several conversations with my wife about the issue, I reached the conclusion that it was necessary to cut off my parents permanently. A choice that was further justified by the fact that even after I made my position clear to my parents they showed up unannounced at my In-law’s house (where my wife and I were staying for Christmas) then proceeded demand they be allowed to see our daughter, and, being denied that, attempted to impugn my character to anyone who would listen.

This brings me back to the article Libby Anne linked to.

Parents tell stories of ill-spoken words, of misunderstanding, of unhelpful interference from others. Much of what they describe, while conflict-laden and uncomfortable, doesn’t seem bad enough to have caused estrangement. The scenarios don’t appear to warrant a total cutoff. At least not according to the way I was raised. I hear that phrase a lot, too.

Most of the parents I talk to are boomers, who share similar values and beliefs, including thoughts on how parents should be treated. The similarities I’ve seen in stories about how they lost contact with their children created a new direction for my research — our culture.

There is something very telling about this quote. I’ll grant that if you listen to individual stories they probably don’t seem bad enough for a cut off. I doubt any single story I could tell  about my family would make people conclude that estrangement was the only option. I suspect this is a common problem though, when people hear you cut off a family member they think of things like physical abuse, but for many, like me, it’s not about any single event but a pattern of behavior typified by emotional manipulation, passive aggression, and microaggressions, that make being around the family member toxic.

Though, what is really telling is her statement about “how parents should be treated.” The implication is that children don’t have the right to cut their parents out of their lives. This reading of her statement is further bolstered by a later statement.

In the past, elders’ experiences were valued and their children listened to them. Estrangement did happen, but it appeared to be reserved for parents cutting off a wayward child — the “black sheep” of the family.

She doesn’t even imply here, she practically outright states that the only allowable use of estrangement is of a parent who cuts off a bad child. Children, even those who have reached adulthood, seem to have little to no autonomy or rights when it comes to familial relationships. Now, I can’t actually know the motivations of my parents, nor am I likely to ask them at this point, but her reasoning certainly seems quite similar to that of my parents. My mother, at one point, claimed, whatever the state of our relationship, she had a right to see her granddaughter. A right which she presumably thinks supersedes my own right to deny her such access.

In my opinion such demands are wrong, but don’t just take my word for it. Sidney Poitier probably says it better than I ever could.

If you aren’t familiar with the movie “Guess who’s coming to Dinner” I suggest watching the whole thing. It’s a rather brilliant movie. Just before this scene Poitier’s father says that he is owed respect for all of the work he put into raising Poitier. The response is perfect. No child owes their parents anything, when you have a child you own them all you can do for them. If you think that you are OWED a relationship with them then it won’t surprise me when your children don’t want to be around you. Rather it is we who are obligated to our children to the be the kinds of people who they will want in their lives when they become adults.

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  • Aram McLean

    Yeah, I hear what you’re saying here. It’s very hard to explain to people why I’ve cut off contact with my family. They just can’t understand it barring a major traumatic event, when really it just comes down to a plethora of things all adding together to create a space of wasted energy I simply cannot spend another moment of my one life in.

    • Dylan Walker (Skeptimus Prime)

      Yeah, often well meaning people, after hearing about something that happened, will say something like “yeah that was wrong of them, but instead of cutting them off completely why didn’t you set down with them and explain to them why what they did was wrong” as if that idea had never occurred to me.

      I, and I suspect most people who have landed in that position, often spent years trying to have exactly those sorts of conversations only to have a mix of denial, victim blaming, projection, and just outright refusal to discuss the topic thrown back at them. Eventually you just realize that nothing you say is likely to change the relationship because they are unable or unwilling to recognize any fault on their side of things.